One of a kind – Steve Sharpe drives Citroen’s C4 Cactus
There’s a fine line between quirky and annoying – and this counts with cars as well as people.
Nissan’s Cube, for instance, looked like Postman Pat’s runaround, which was OK, but then had lots of new-age explanations for some of its weirder elements, one of which was a circle of hairy upholstery on the dashboard which looked like a muppet had melted into the dash.
Smart cars might look cute but they shake your teeth out if you go over 30mph.
So when Citroen’s Cactus C4 first showed its face there was a danger that it might go the same way.
It was a bit of a gamble to produce a mainstream model with such unusual styling, which included padded plastic air-filled patches across the doors – and in contrasting colours to boot.
And Cactus isn’t your run-of-the-mill moniker for a new car.
Not only that, some of the colours available, including bright yellow and green versions, were hardly subtle.
The yellow version especially bore a resemblance to the safari cars which carried the passengers around in the original Jurassic Park
Yet look beyond those padded doors – which as well as having a visual impact are air-filled and meant to protect from minor dents and scratches – and you see that the Cactus is actually a striking car without the add-ons.
The padded doors and built up wheel arches break up the shape but, with its horizontal lines, shallow windows and the bulk of the car under the shoulder line, it bears a similarity to the much-admired Range Rover Evoque.
And the bold blunt, sloping front end, striking 17” alloys and glossy black roof rails give the Cactus a sturdy, tough look.
Inside the styling is just as quirky. Traditional circular dials have been replaced by a digital only speed readout viewed through the gap in the steering wheel, while a 7” information touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard can be used to control the heater and blowers. It clears the way for a simple and uncluttered dash
It’s a striking interior – the dash has a flattened surface, while the glovebox is accessed by a horizontal lid, which is a nice practical touch.
Dimples on the flat surface offer extra hold, too, which is another useful addition.
Many of the surfaces are padded and the door handles are a bendable material, adding to its quirky feel. Some of the plastics are on the hard scratchy side, but the overall effect is a smart and distinctive look.
It’s also a comfortable place in which to travel. The seats are wide and springy, and there’s plenty of space in the front and back, both for legroom and headroom.
The boot’s a good size, although the lip is high to hoist over bulky items, and unusually the rear seats don’t split so you either have passenger space or extra load space, and no chance of a combination of the two.
Equally unusually the rear windows don’t wind open – you can take them out completely or they wedge a little way open.
As a family hatchback / crossover there’s plenty of practicality built in, with loads of storage areas dotted around.
There are a number of engines in the range, but I drove the 1.2 litre Pure tech petrol version, with a five-speed manual gearbox.
The small engine proved able to cope admirably with day-to-day driving. There’s good pull in low gears and overtaking’s no problem at lower speeds, with the turbocharged Puretech engine surging pleasingly when called upon.
The gearbox lets the side down a little, being surprisingly squidgy, but once you get used to it and its long gearing, it does its job.
With the way the gearing’s set up, though, if you’re not careful you end up lacking power in a higher gear.
The Cactus is looking to satisfy those after a hatchback or a crossover so it has to strike a good combination of comfort, agility and performance.
It’s 200kg lighter than the standard Citroen C4, as everything has been pared down to a minimum to save weight, so it’s reasonably agile when tackling corners.
The suspension has been set up for comfort rather than handling, so there’s body lean when cornering, but it means that the Cactus soaks up practically all the bumps and humps that the roads of the North East can throw at it.
The Cactus is incredibly easy to drive, with a fine all -round performance. It can cruise at motorway speeds easily, while there are good amounts of grip so that you always feel in control.
It’s also pretty quiet, with road noise and wind noise kept to a minimum, and the turbocharged 1.2 engine is nicely hushed in comparison to many other smaller-engined hatchbacks.
The comfortable suspension set-up, good all-round visibility and decent steering make town driving easy, and the blunt front and rear end means that you have a good idea of the car’s ends when parking and reversing.
Citroen have a history dotted with eccentric models –think the hugely successful 2CV – and the Cactus fits nicely in to that category.
And like the 2CV the Cactus is very reasonably priced, with prices starting at just under £13,000 for the entry level 1.2 petrol through to more than £18,000 for the top spec 1.6 diesel.
That’s pretty competitive in the hatchback and crossover class.
And if you’re looking to save pennies you don’t have to go for high-spec models for a good levels of equipment.
There are three trim levels called Touch, Feel and Flair but every model gets the seven-inch touch-screen system, digital radio, USB socket, cruise control and electric front window.
Feel trim adds air-con, Bluetooth stuff, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gloss black exterior trim and body-coloured door handles while top-of-the-range Flair models get sensors, camera and satnav.
The Cactus has been winning awards aplenty, tellingly in both hatchback and crossover sections, and once you’ve spent time behind the wheel it’s not surprising.
It also, importantly, posts excellent fuel economy and very low CO2 emissions.
The 1.6-litre Blue HDi diesel is particularly efficient, emitting just 87g/km of CO2 and averaging more than 80mpg in official EU tests.
Even the 1110bhp version I drove pumped out just 107g/km of CO2 and you can expect to get 60mpg.
The Citroen is a likeable, easy to drive car. What it lacks it excitement it makes up for with practicality and quirkiness.
Citroen C4 Cactus
Engine: 1.2 litre petrol
Transmission: 5 speed manual
0-62mph: 9 secs
Top speed: 117 mph
Fuel economy: 60.1mpg avg
Price: £17,290 (£19,740 including options)